That's All For Today
That’s All For Today
Robert Boris Riskin
In the beginning I used to go directly to his office, which was on the fourth floor of a medical building, one of those facilities put up on the cheap by speculators, usually with doctors fronting the capital. The parking area was in back, and I had to drive my Mercedes carefully through a narrow alley to get to it. The lobby floor was a grayish vinyl tile that looked as if a trainload of muddy boots had trampled it. For decoration artificial ficus trees grew out of clay-colored plastic pots filled with scraps of paper and cigarette butts.
His outer office was the size of a large closet. There were two uncomfortable chairs along with a wooden coffee table that held a scattering of dated magazines. There was never anyone waiting.
As soon as I opened the door, I checked my watch. For some reason I was always five minutes late. This prompted the same tired bullshit regarding lateness in general and mine in particular.
“Give me a break, will you, Bogdan? I’m late because this god damned building has a hundred quacks but parking for only fifty. Somebody must have paid off the zoning board.”
He wasn’t anything like what I would have imagined for someone with the name, Bogdan Shipkowski. He should have had a degree from a university in Mittel Europa, an Uncle Joe mustache, deep set eyes, that sort of thing. Instead, he had gone to school in Pittsburgh, was tall, fair, with brown eyes and thinning red hair. His one distinguishing feature was a small, round, silly putty-like nose with two large nostrils. Reddish strands of hair hung out of those holes like Lilliputian carrots.
In one of our early sessions he said, “What we will do here is a search. It is a search for something that is quite difficult to find.”
“And what is that?” I asked.
“We search for the truth. The elusive truth is what we are trying to find. And it is most elusive, I assure you.”
“It sounds like we’re looking for the Great White Whale,” I said.
His response was to write a few notes on his pad, pull on the lapels of his three piece suit, then lean back in his chair and look up at the ceiling. He didn’t speak. He wanted me to start the ball rolling. Fuck that. I leaned back in my chair. No desk between us, it was over in a corner. Obviously set up that way to make the patient feel he was just having a nice cozy shmooze with a friend. I clamped my teeth together and stared at the flowered bow tie drooping from his collar as if it needed watering. Ten minutes went by before he caved.
“Why have you come to me?” he asked.
I thought before answering. “My wife made me.”
“You don’t seem to be the sort of person who would do something another person suggested unless you agreed with the suggestion.”
“Maybe you’re right.”
“Well, then, what?”
He didn’t sigh. I admired him for that. He knew I was pulling his chain but he stayed patient. “Tell me why you are here.”
I thought again. I knew why I was there. The question was, should I tell him or would he figure it out for himself?
In the end, I decided to give him a hint. “My wife says I’m depressed.”
“Why does she think that?”
Headaches, I thought. Rotten, miserable headaches that wake me up in the middle of the night with pain so fierce I want to scream. I’d never had a headache before in my life. And sex. Or no sex. And other things. Like I didn’t much care about work anymore. But I didn’t tell him about any of them. That day I didn’t say another word.
I sat in my 530SL, shut my eyes tight, and tried to get my breathing regular. I sucked in the smell of expensive leather and thought, what do I need this for? To hell with him, I'm never going back there again.
I went for a month with very little being said. Sometimes the whole session would go by without my saying anything but hello and goodbye. After the time went crawling by, he would go over and pick up the wristwatch that lay on his desk, and say, “That's all for today,” as if it all had gone according to plan. I sensed there was a power struggle going on. This was something I understood. I knew how to play the game and it was one I didn’t remember ever losing.
Beverly asked me how it was going.
“But you’re still getting the headaches?”
“I only wish the guy could perform miracles. I asked him to throw a rod on the floor and make it turn into a snake like Charlton Heston did, but he wouldn’t do it.”
Bev glared at me. I wasn’t sure if it was hate or hurt I could see in her eyes. It was hard to tell, but it was a look I now saw every day.
We’d been married more than twenty-five years with no complaints on my part. I’d fooled around but never seriously. I took it as part of my job. I had a lot of women clients. Sometimes they wanted more than a business lunch, was all. I didn’t think Bev had ever fooled around. All she ever wanted was to have a baby. But it didn’t happen. Then, after almost ten years she finally had Debby. She was the happiest I’d ever seen her. That baby could do no wrong. Fill her diaper every ten minutes, it didn’t matter to Bev. Wake up howling for a bottle in the middle of the night, no problem. Eat, sleep, wash, dry, Bev never asked me to do a thing. It was her pleasure to do it all.
After I'd been going to him for two months, he said something that surprised me, and I was not easy to surprise. When I was eight years old I had been what you might call “surprised” by my sixteen year old Uncle Brandon, and one of his friends. That went on until I was thirteen. Then I got hold of a hammer. I broke Uncle Brandon’s nose and laid out his friend with a concussion. They never bothered me again.
We had reached the end of yet another frustrating session, and I was putting on my coat, when he said, “I'd like you to come to my house from now on, instead of here.”
I smiled, and said, “Bogdan, I didn't know you cared.”
“I'm well aware,” he said, “that you don't like coming to this office.”
“Don't like? I hate everything about it. Especially the parking. The parking drives me crazy.”
“An unfortunate choice of words,” he said, a hint of a smile around his chubby lips. “I think you know it's not the parking that disturbs you.”
“What? That I don't want to come here altogether? No way to fool you, is there?”
“But you do come,” he said. “And I am trying to make it easier for you. I have an office in my home. I sometimes see patients there. It's no more than you have to drive now, and you'll have no trouble parking.”
I looked carefully into his soft brown eyes to see if he might be needling me, but I saw nothing other than the usual impenetrable stare.
I was extremely disappointed by where he lived. I think I expected to find him in a witch's house, something dark, hidden in deep woods, with a thatched roof, and black ravens hopping about. Instead, he was ensconced in an ordinary house on an ordinary suburban street, with one ordinary house side by side to another. They were the same: split level, garage driveway to the left, four brick steps with a wrought iron handrail leading up to the entry door which had an aluminum storm door hiding it. In front, a small, neat lawn, and shrubs trimmed into the immaculate squares that only gardeners and my wife, Beverly, like.
A desolate looking Corrolla slumped in the driveway. I parked in the street. I'd stopped at a car wash on my way over. My dark green paint gleamed. Sunlight dazzled off the chrome trim. The telephone antenna rose like a black arrow from the rear glass. The license plate, RE DEAL, told the world how I made my living. The car itself told the world how good at it I was.
The door behind the storm door was open. I rang the bell and went inside. I found myself in the living room, a staircase directly in front of me. Bogdan appeared at the top and called down to me, “Close the door please, and come on up.”
A quick glance showed me a room with nothing to distinguish it from the hundreds I'd seen over the years except that it had a baby grand piano in one corner. The stairs were carpeted in a gray berber. I went up to the landing where he directed me into what once must have been a bedroom. It now contained a desk, a couple of upholstered armchairs, and the familiar leather slab.
“Let me take your coat,” he said.
I handed him my topcoat. It was that time of year when the air was cold at six o'clock in the morning, which was when I left the house to go to work. I liked to get to the office before anybody else. I liked the idea of being there alone, going through everybody's paper work, sizing up the deals, the offers, the counter-offers. I'd sit there with a container of coffee from the 7-Eleven at the corner, and I'd think about the deals that were going on, and how all these deals were being done by people who worked for me, people who made their living because of me, whose lives depended on me. I would think about this and I would get an awesome rush. It was incredible how it made me feel. It was better than almost anything. Yes, it was even better than sex.
We sat. I did what I always did. I crossed my legs, put the tips of my fingers together, and stared at his bow tie. After a while my eyes shifted and I noticed that the desk here was quite different from the mahogany one in his office. The legs were chrome and the top was glass. The walls were painted white, hung with colorful flower prints, and light from two large windows filled the room. Before I could stop myself, I said, “This is nice.”
Bogdan didn't smile. He held the pencil between two fingers the way old world spies in the movies used to hold a cigarette. “I'm glad,” he said. “I'm hoping it will help.”
“I doubt it,” I said.
“I'm not in a hurry,” he said.
“Sure. It's my hundred and fifty bucks every time I show up.”
Bogdan stared at me with his dense eyes. “Let's talk about your daughter.”
I looked away from him, wary. He had never confronted me this way before. “Did my wife say anything? Is that why you asked for my permission to speak to her?”
“I wanted to speak to your wife because I thought it was important to hear her viewpoint. I had no idea what she was going to tell me. But yes, as a matter of fact, she did mention your daughter.”
“What did she say?”
“More important is what you have to say.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Anything you care to tell me.”
“You know what? I don't think I care to tell you anything.” I turned away and looked at a painting on the wall. The colors were a mish-mash without shape or design.
“You sound combative,” Bogdan said.
I stood up suddenly feeling dizzy, went to the closet, took my coat, opened the door, stumbled down the steps two at a time out to the street. I sat in my car and tried to insert the key into the ignition but couldn’t.
While I sat there, banging the steering column with the point of the key, Bogdan came and opened the door. He put his hand on my shoulder. “This is not good,” he said. “Come out of the car. Come with me.”
I couldn't move. Every few seconds a tremor went through my body like the aftershock of an earthquake. I squeezed my eyes shut, and realized they were wet.
There was a tug on my arm. “Come,” he said.
I walked as if my feet were in desert sand. Streaks of sun attacked my eyes. I let him lead me into the house, his hand firmly gripping my arm above the elbow. He led me into the living room where I sat on the couch, sinking into fat cushions.
“I'm going to make some tea,” he said.
I kept my eyes closed and listened to my breathing gradually change from quick intakes of breath to a slower, steadier rhythm. I was no longer trembling. After a while I cautiously opened my eyes. The light was filtered by curtains and blinds. A ray of sunlight had managed to sneak through; it touched the baby grand revealing a blemish on its shiny surface. When Bogdan came back with the tea, I was feeling somewhat better and able to hold the cup in a hand that was almost, but not quite, as firm and solid as the Prudential rock.
The next time I went, there was a white Volvo station wagon in the driveway. To me that meant suburban matron, plenty of money, children in school, nothing to do between tennis and bridge, so she might as well massage her psyche. A note taped on the door read, “Please ring bell, enter, and wait in living room.”
I sat on a chair, not the couch. I placed each of my arms on the chair's arms, and attempted to keep my back straight and my head erect. In the last few months my neck had been causing me unceasing pain. Sometimes it was so sore I could barely move it an inch in either direction. I followed Beverly’s suggestion that I go to our internist. He in turn conferred with his nurse or his maid, told me it was probably arthritis and to take two aspirin and forget about it. He mentioned x-rays but I'd only just read an article that said too many x-rays could cause cancer so I eighty-sixed that.
I heard someone on the stairs and quickly looked. Because Bogdan cleverly arranged his hours so that one head case wouldn't stumble into another, this was the first time I'd had a chance to see another patient. Not a suburban matron, a girl. She wore jeans and an oversized sweater. Her hair was long, blonde, hanging loose down to her shoulders. She moved rapidly, looking straight ahead, avoiding eye contact.
She went out the door. I got up and watched her get into the Volvo, then ran up the stairs.
“Who was that?”
“You know I can’t tell you.”
“You've told me about other patients of yours.”
“Of course. But you never met them. You had no idea who I was talking about.”
“I don’t want to know her name or address or anything like that. Just something.”
“Why do you want to know?”
I shrugged. “Forget about it.”
Bogdan went and sat behind the glass desk. He picked up the ubiquitous pencil and rolled it between his fingers. “You think that woman looked like your daughter?”
“What gives you that idea?”
“All right. I thought so at first, but the more I think of it the more I realize she didn’t look like Debby at all.”
“Is that your daughter’s name?”
“No, it's my dog's. Of course it's her name.”
He wrote something.
"What am I getting, a demerit?"
“Think about it,” he said. “Why does this young woman concern you?”
“She doesn’t. It’s just that she looks like my daughter. Or I thought so for a minute anyway.”
“Did you find her attractive?” he asked.
“What kind of a question is that?”
He wrote some more.
“What are you getting at?”
“What do you think I might be getting at?”
“I don’t know and I don’t want to know.”
He rotated the pencil between his fingers as if it were a talisman.
It was the waiting shtick again. He ought to recognize by now how well that was going to work. So far, not much more than a drop had he gotten from me, although for what must have been a milli-second, I had an impulse to tell him to fuck off. I stood up. “I have to use the john,” I said. Those were the only drops I would give him.
On a day when I didn’t have an appointment I drove by Bogdan's house to see if the Volvo was there. It wasn't. Then I drove to his office, even went around the lot in back and covered the streets in the area.
For my next appointment, I went a half hour early. The Volvo wasn't in the driveway. Perhaps she only saw him once a week. In that case, she would surely be there the next time I went. She wasn't.
I drove past Bogdan's house and his office whenever I could take a break from work. It got so that I was spending a couple of hours every day looking for the girl’s car. Wherever I went I was on the lookout for the white Volvo wagon. I'd see Volvo station wagons everywhere, especially going in the opposite direction. I'd spot one, make a U turn and try to catch up to it. Or I'd see one parked in a lot at some shopping center, and I'd pull off the road and wait to see who owned it. It was never the girl.
One day I sat in my car at the end of Bogdan's block for several hours drinking lukewarm coffee out of a container like a P.I. I knew what P.I.'s were like because I'd hired one to look for Debby after she'd run away. He'd turned in worthless reports and exorbitant bills. The lady in front of whose house I was parked kept peering at me from behind the curtains of her picture window making me feel like I was a threat to the community.
I did the same thing around his office. I put in a few mornings there, and a few afternoons, but no white Volvo wagon, and no blonde.
When I ran out of patience, I asked Bogdan as casually as I could, what happened to the girl I'd once seen at his house.
“She stopped coming,” he said.
“So you cured her? You made her normal?”
Bogdan rolled his pencil. “As a matter of fact, no.”
“Why did she stop then?”
Bogdan said, “I shouldn't be discussing it.”
“Come on," I said. "What's the difference now?”
He paused, deciding, then said, “I think she was afraid.”
“Recognizing the truth.”
“That elusive truth you once talked about?”
I stood up and began walking around the room. I went back and forth, from one end to the other. There was a prickly sensation in my jaw, my tongue felt swollen in my mouth.
“Do you want to tell me about Debby?” he asked.
I lay back on the couch and closed my eyes. Images came to me, Debby at two years of age going into the kitchen in the middle of the night to get a snack out of the refrigerator, at five, running across the street when I’d told her to stay on our side, at thirteen, the two of us in the ocean, waves lifting us like corks. She put her arms around my neck, holding on, and with her small body against mine I felt as close to believing in a benevolent God as I ever would. “She ran away,” I said.
I shook my head.
Bogdan's voice was soothing. “Tell me about it.”
“I don't know.” My fingers felt like worms. “All of a sudden, she hated me. She wouldn't stay in a room with me. If I asked her anything she'd give me a yes or no and duck out. But I could feel the hate. I wasn't dreaming.”
“Did something happen?”
“Nothing that I know of. I liked to hug her and kiss her. I liked her to sit on my lap.”
“How old was she when she sat on your lap?”
“Not old. Thirteen, fourteen.”
“And how old was she when you became aware of what you call, ‘hate.’”
“I’m not sure. Maybe around her sixteenth birthday?”
“Did you talk to your wife about it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then what?” he asked.
“One day she was gone. I asked Bev what happened. She said Debby went away. What do you mean, went away? She's only seventeen. ‘She said she had to go,’ Bev says. Why? ‘Think about it’, Bev says. ‘Maybe you can figure it out.’”
“But you didn’t. Is that right? Figure it out.”
“No. I mean, yes. She was trying to suggest it was my fault. But it wasn’t. The kid just took off.”
Bogdan went back to the chair behind his desk. “When did she leave? How long has it been?”
“Eleven months and six days.”
With his fingertips he rolled the pencil, back and forth, back and forth, not speaking.
I couldn’t stand it. “Come on, say something.”
“I’d rather you spoke…about your daughter...”
“I’m sick of this. Fuck this shit,” I said.
I drove around for hours through parts of the South Shore I hadn't been to in years. I passed developments I'd helped build, shopping centers I'd bought and sold. The phone rang. I didn't answer. At one point I found myself driving through an area of beautiful homes. There were interminable, perfect lawns and winding Belgian block driveways. The road went in circles so that I had no idea where I was. After a while, the monotony of streets without sidewalks and massively overfed ilex made me decide it was time to find my way out. That was when I saw the white Volvo wagon. It stood alone in a wide driveway leading to a three car garage.
I stopped and stared at the car for several minutes. I saw the Triple “A” sticker on the bumper and remembered there being one. It was hers. My fingers gripped the steering wheel. I was breathing in gasps. The house was a Tudor with a gray slate roof, casement windows, off white stucco and dark wood trim. The entrance door had brass fittings and stained glass panels set at eye level.
I drove into the driveway and pulled up next to the Volvo. I went to the front door and pushed the button. I could hear chimes clanging inside the house like Big Ben.
The door swung open. I stared at this fairy tale princess come to life.
She looked at me suspiciously but without fear. “Yes?”
I took a deep breath. “You look just like my daughter,” I said. “She has the same hair. Long and blonde, and it shines just like yours.”
The words I'd just spoken sounded tinny, as if they’d been plucked off the strings of a banjo.
The perfect features of her face remained immobile. I watched one hand rise slowly from her side and come to rest on the edge of the door. She began to close it. “Get lost, mister,” she said. The massive door swung silently on well oiled hinges and with a thud slammed shut.
I went home. I told Bev about the girl.
“What was the point?”
“This girl was so much like her.”
“It doesn’t matter if she was like her or not. She’s not Debby. And finding a look-a-like is not going to help. Face it. Debby’s never coming back.”
“You don’t know that for a fact.”
“Don’t I? I know it as sure as I know one rotten day follows another. I know that I should’ve left when she left.”
“Why didn’t you?”
Bev stared hard at me. I could tell she wanted to say something but held it back. She went out of the room and returned with a piece of luggage from the new set I had bought last year. We’d been planning to go on a cruise. But that was before Debby left. “I believed in us. But maybe I was wrong.”
She put the suitcase on the bed. The bedspread was patterned in pink roses and green foliage. She opened the suitcase, then looked at me and shook her head slowly from side to side. I watched two tears emerge from her eyes and roll slowly down her cheeks, leaving trails. “Debby was here.”
“What?” I couldn’t believe it. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“She didn’t want me to. Day before yesterday. She knocked on the door. I almost died.”
“What happened? What did she say?”
“I begged her to come back. She said she couldn’t.”
“Then why did she come? There must have been a reason.”
“She wanted me to leave you and live with her.”
“But you’re still here.”
My knees were suddenly weak. I sat down on the bed. I knew something bad was about to happen.
Beverly placed her hands in her lap. “She told me things.”
I had to ask. “What things?”
“I can’t say them.”
“Yes you can.”
A long moment passed. Beverly looked at me, her eyes full of hurt. “She said you did business with her. She said you made her ashamed.”
My brain was suddenly filled with pain. I saw only a kaleidoscope of garish colors. I wanted to howl like Lear. But I didn’t. “So it’s true,” I said.
“You know it is. You’ve known it all along.”
“I tried to tell myself it was only a dream. A fantasy.”
“Did you really believe you could do that?”
“I’m sorry.” I said, hearing the inadequacy. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry…”
Beverly continued to look at me. I didn’t know what she wanted me to do or say.
I said, “You should have gone with her.”
“I’m glad you didn’t,” I said.
We stopped talking. We were each in our own circle of solitude, a dark silence between us like a frozen lake at dusk.
After what seemed like a long time, but probably wasn’t, I got up, went downstairs and
into the garage. The Mercedes’ profile was low and sleek. It sat there in the pale light glistening with the energy and power I had strived for all my life.
I had saved the hammer I’d used on my uncle and his friend. I picked it up and held it in my hand. I thought of smashing the windshield, bringing down the hammer as hard as I could, first on the glass, then on the gleaming metal. Instead I got behind the wheel and started the engine. It’s eight cylinders purred with hardly a murmur.
I sat there and listened to the sound of the engine as the German spark plugs fired flawlessly. The fumes from the exhaust began to enter the interior of the car. I knew what was happening, that if I remained there long enough I would die. A simple, painless way out. How would Bev react? Would she be sorry to lose me but glad to have me gone? She could reunite with Debby. That would be a good thing.
The fumes were getting heavier, more noticeable. My eyes began to tear. I suddenly realized that if I passed out the engine would continue to run. The fumes would enter the house and take Beverly along with me. I certainly didn’t want that. I’d hurt her enough.
I turned off the ignition.
I left the garage and went into the bathroom. I could feel the tendons in my neck tightening into knots. It was an effort just to soap my hands and rinse them. I avoided looking at myself in the mirror.
I dialed Bogdan Shipkowski.
When he answered, I was unable to speak.
“Who is this?” His voice was quiet and undemanding.
I swallowed hard. “It’s me.”
“Ah, yes. Has something happened?”
“She was here. She was almost back.”
I heard an intake of breath.
“That’s good,” he said. “That’s very good.” I could picture him looking at his calendar. “Can you come in tomorrow at ten o’clock?”